> A KALEIDOScOPE OF CULTURES
Toledo is home to probably the widest range of cultures found anywhere in Belize.
The inland (Mopan) Maya and Kekchi villages complemented by the Garifuna coastal settlements of Barranco and Peini, the East Indian villages of the (US) Confederate 'Toledo Settlement', and the Creole and Mestizo influences in modern-day Punta Gorda Town all combine to produce a veritable kaleidoscope of cultures, albeit with the ethnic groups retaining strong cultural traditions, most obviously through language, music, food, and dress.
> creole music
Most commonly known as 'brukdown', creole music is a mix of calypso melodies with a variety of musical instruments. Punta Gorda is most famed by a Belizean cultural icon, Leela Vernon (1950-2017), who worked to promote and preserving Creole culture through her music.
Ms. Leela was awarded the title “Queen of Brukdown”, received the Order of the British Empire for promoting Creole culture and music, and was named the Brukdown Artist of the Year in 2004. Today, a Leela Vernon Landmark has been established in Punta Gorda Town (#6 Front Street), otherwise known as the 'Leela Vernon Memorial Museum and Kriol Kulcha House and botanical Garden'.
Maroon Creole Drum School is also one of Belize's recognized Creole drumming groups, and also known for their 'Drums Not Guns' slogan.
> MAYA EXPERIENCE
The Living Maya Experience is a wonderful program which gives you an authentic daytime 'homestay' type experience, and an introduction into Maya life.
The program is offered by the Cal family and showcases a traditional Maya home and the maya history, complete with bark mattress bed, a wooden mangle to extract sugar cane juice, and wooden moulds to make sugar cakes. Guests tour the kitchen garden, selecting ingredients and herbs and spices used to season your traditional lunch, and giving guests a chance to grind corn on a metate and make traditional corn tortillas on the comal.
> GARIFUNA DRUMMING
Ray McDonald founded Warasa Garifuna Drum School in 2010 with a painted plywood sign outside his house, and interest quickly spread from giving regular lessons to include performances and lessons at a number of guesthouses and lodges throughout the District. Today, Warasa is proudly housed in its own traditional thatch building.
Ray is an engaging character and a very patient and skilled teacher, and can teach even the most non-musical to master at least one of the six traditional rhythms. Being fiercely proud of the Garifuna culture, lessons are filled with anecdotes and stories that provide a fascinating insight into the Garifuna culture – a culture which was little known outside of the region until recently, but one which is now recognized by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.
The drums themselves are a labour of love, hollowed out from cedar, mahogany or yemeri logs, topped with deer skin held in place by vines, and a wire or string snare to intensify the sound. Ray's drum-making lessons show you the basics of making a Garifuna drum – from chiselling, planing and sanding a solid log into shape, preparing the deerskin, making the natural wood pins to tighten the ropes, attaching the skin, to the final finishing touches. If you have the time (2 days, at least a week apart to allow for the deerskin to dry) you will even be able to make your own primero drum for an everlasting reminder of the Garifuna culture.
> CACAO & CHOCOLATE
Cacao - or cocoa as many of us know it - has played a dominant role from ancient times, when the Maya first discovered the 'magical' process that transformed cacao into chocolate, right through to the modern day. The Toledo District of southern Belize is today home to the organic cacao orchards where the pods are grown and harvested, and later transformed into chocolate.
Whilst small amounts of cacao are grown in some other districts in Belize, Toledo is acknowledged as being supreme chocolate country, not least because of its terroir, providing optimum climate and soil conditions. This, coupled with the numerous natural wild crosses produced over the years, give rise to cacao beans highly prized by chocolatiers within Belize and abroad.
Cacao tours take you into Toledo's heartland, with its lush green interior blanketing the foothills of the Maya Mountains and the traditional villages of Toledo's chocolate country. Tours visit the organic cacao orchards, where cacao is grown under the shade of indigenous trees, and alongside other crops, including pineapple, coffee, papaya, avocado and all spice.
You will learn how the pods grow and are harvested, and the fermentation process which results in the beans that were the foundation of the famous Maya Gold organic chocolate – itself inspired by the local Maya chocolate ‘kukuh’ drink.
The Cacao Trail tours are as much of a cultural experience as they are a chocolate education, and some tours include helping prepare lunch at the family home, whilst others include making your own chocolate.